Arctic beluga whale spotted far from home 'swimming strongly' in River Thames estuary

A beluga whale breaches in the River Thames close to Gravesend, east of London.
A beluga whale breaches in the River Thames close to Gravesend, east of London.PHOTO: AFP
A Beluga whale swims in the River Thames near Gravesend, east of London.
A Beluga whale swims in the River Thames near Gravesend, east of London.PHOTO: REUTERS

GRAVESEND, United Kingdom (AFP) - A beluga whale spotted in the River Thames estuary outside London - far from its natural Arctic habitat - is "swimming strongly and feeding normally", Britain's main animal protection charity said on Wednesday (Sept 26).

"At the moment, there are no major concerns for the welfare of the animal," the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said in a statement, adding that the whale appeared "able to move fast in the water and dive".

"Following our request to the London Coastguard, we are pleased that local boats have moved away. Whales have acute hearing and become stressed very easily," the group said.

The extremely rare sighting triggered wonder and excitement on Tuesday and the whale was spotted again in the same area on Wednesday.

Rob Lott, a marine mammal scientist at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation wildlife charity, said the cetacean was being monitored.

"The longer it stays in the Thames estuary then it will become more of a concern," he told BBC radio.

"Hopefully, instinct will soon kick in and the beluga will leave the estuary and go out into the North Sea and then head north where it should be," the scientist explained.

The sight of a beluga whale so far south - 1,600km from even Iceland - is exceptional.

"Beluga whales are a species of the icy Arctic - finding one in the tepid Thames is an astonishingly rare event," said Rod Downie, polar chief adviser at WWF, the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Lucy Babey, head of science and conservation at the marine conservation charity Orca, said it was the most southerly recording of a beluga in Britain, according to the BBC.

The previous reported sightings of beluga whales in British waters were in 2015, when two were spotted off the north-east coast of England and one in Northern Ireland.

Rescue teams are on standby in case the whale gets into trouble.

"It's very unusual and it's not a very good place," Julia Cable, spokeswoman for British Divers Marine Life Rescue, which saves marine animals in distress, told AFP.

The Thames remains a busy waterway and the whale is currently between two major container docks, Tilbury and the new London Gateway port.

"We wouldn't go anywhere near it in a boat. We could just do more harm than good," said Cable.


The beluga was first sighted on Tuesday near the southern, Kent side of the river, downstream of Gravesend.

It was feeding around moored barges and did not move more than 200m during the day.

An AFP photographer saw the whale surfacing in the same area on Wednesday.

Belugas typically live for 40 to 60 years. Highly sociable, they typically form pods and are often seen in river estuaries in the summer.

The beluga's appearance brings back memories of the famous 2006 Thames whale.

A female northern bottlenose whale was discovered swimming in the river in central London, going past the Houses of Parliament.

On its second day in the city, as it lost strength, rescuers intervened and lifted it onto a barge by crane. It died, after suffering from convulsions, near Gravesend as the barge rushed towards the open sea.